Business Communicators Beware: CEOs Increasingly Are Expected to Comment on Social, Political Issues

Earlier this year I blogged with regard to a New York Times interview with McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski, calling attention to the discussion of corporate positioning on social and political issues. Interestingly, the Times has done a deeper dive on this subject in a Nov. 28 article headlined “Red Brands and Blue Brands: Is hyper-partisanship coming for corporate America?” It’s a worthwhile read, particularly for business communicators. If one hasn’t already established criteria and thresholds for when corporate leaders should speak out, it presents a strong argument for doing so. The article also makes it clear that oftentimes there will be consequences for the substance of a corporation’s position on any given issue. Forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes, and the article is appropriately cautionary. Kudos to reporter David Gelles for his work.

McDonald’s CEO Lays Out Solid Guidelines for Commenting on Hot-Button Issues

No doubt a lot of organizations these days are having to determine when and when not to speak out on social, political and other issues that gain prominence in the news. That’s setting aside for a moment the question of WHAT organizations might say publicly, if they decide to do so. In this past Sunday’s New York Times, McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski did a pretty good job, I feel, of setting the boundaries for hot topics that McDonald’s will and won’t comment on. Asked “Where is the company on voting rights?”, Mr. Kempczinski’s reply included the following: “Is it either directly in our industry — which is an obvious one that we would comment on — or does it go specifically to the pillars that we’ve said are going to matter to us? So we’ve talked about jobs and opportunity. We’ve talked about helping communities in crisis. We’ve talked about planet. And we’ve talked about supporting local farmers and ranchers. Those are areas that we’ve said are specific to our business where we feel like we’ve got a role to play. If it’s outside of that, then there has to be a really good reason that us saying something can also be part of the solution.”

“Does it go specifically to the pillars that we’ve said are going to matter to us?”

— McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski

There’s more, but that’s the core of his answer. The interview doesn’t include a logical follow-up question, i.e., “Pillars aside, what do you do in instances where a portion of your workforce wants or expects the company to speak up?” From a messaging and reputation management standpoint, I believe this topic is going to get increasingly interesting as more and more young people who’ve grown up with social media and put their views on public display rise to the ranks of organizational leadership.

There are some good case studies and best-practice conversations to be had here, I’m sure.

Communications 101: Translate Technical Information Into Understandable Concepts and Messaging

Upon joining the Nuclear Energy Institute as media relations director some years ago — and running smack dab into the significant amount of jargon unique to the industry — one of the first things I did was ask a member of the design team to create a “Death to Acronyms” sign for me. He came back with a highly creative, 8″ x 10″ sign featuring skull-and-crossbones lettering that I hung on my wall for anyone and everyone entering my office to see. The sign served as a constant reminder to me — and I believe as a challenge to others — that effective communications hinged on our willingness and determination to take highly technical information endemic to the industry and convert it into concepts and messaging understandable by the layman.

This belief that technical matters need not remain technical is why this Dave Lieber column in The Dallas Morning News strikes a chord with me. Dave’s lament, “Translating ERCOT jargon is like rolling a boulder uphill,” is one that every communications professional — no matter what the industry or organization — needs to keep foremost in mind daily. Whether the deliverable is talking points, a news release, a tweet, a video, a fact sheet, media training, an infographic — it is incumbent upon communicators to translate information from the technical side of the house so that it is digestible by the general public. If we fail to do that, we’re not doing our jobs and merit the criticism voiced in this Morning News column.

If one simply is regurgitating what one is told without making the mental effort to ask oneself whether it is understandable and, if not, to make it so, then one needn’t be on the payroll. This responsibility is and always will be one of the fundamental aspects of media relations, public relations and marketing. Period.

Packers QB Aaron Rodgers Shares a Media Relations Best Practice

As another season of NFL football kicks off tonight, it seems appropriate to take an enduring media relations tip from one of the game’s greatest, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. In his appearance on the inaugural segment of “10 Questions with Kyle Brandt” last month, the future Hall of Famer was asked whether he has a general strategy or philosophy for dealing with the news media.

His reply is absolutely on point: i.e., be thoughtful, slow down, be respectful and, if possible, address your questioner by name. Former President Bill Clinton was the master of “taking a beat” before answering questions he fielded. If you really want to study the technique, dig up some old videotape of his press conferences and interviews. The two and one-half minute portion of Aaron’s discussion with Brandt relative to the news media picks up at the 46:50 mark of their lengthy conversation. Here’s the link to the podcast:

A Stellar Interview on Fox News Sunday; Media Training and Execution at Its Best

I was highly impressed by the on-camera interview that Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association and the National Center for Assisted Living, did on May 24 with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. Excellent message discipline for the full eight minutes on live TV; showed compassion and didn’t diminish the impact of COVID-19 in nursing homes; superb bridging to points he wanted to make: “the good news is” …. “what we’ve learned”; countered a tough question on a GAO study by referencing another finding from the same study; buttressed his credibility in another answer by noting, “I’ve been a governor ….”

Kudos to the governor and those who prepped him.

You’re in a Political Candidate’s Crosshairs. Can You Respond?

Energy sector executives, government affairs representatives and communication leaders would be well advised to read this past Sunday’s business section article in The Washington Post headlined, “Trump, 2020 hopefuls are calling out U.S. firms.” It speaks to one of those sector-agnostic phenomena that is as relevant to one industry, and company, as the next. This phenomenon, as reported by The Post, centers on presidential candidates “directly challenging U.S. businesses in a way that historians and communication experts say underscores a new era.”

The practical takeaways relative to this development – which arguably is as applicable to state-level candidates as it is national ones – are twofold:

  1. It is essential to have at the ready a set of talking points that speak to the company’s mission and culture broadly, and other sets of talking points that speak to a company’s particular “hot button” issues and to major news developments that transcend different business sectors.
  2. It is useful as the election season intensifies to compile a record of relevant votes taken and/or statements made by political candidates relative to your company and industry.

With regard to talking points, it will be far easier to respond in real time to media inquiries and to craft appropriate tweets if one’s organization has kept current a general set of messages that align with its mission and brand. In this same vein, if the organization is siting or otherwise supporting development of an energy facility (think natural gas pipeline or wind farm, for example), one can anticipate that political candidates at one level or another are going to weigh in and necessitate something more than a “no comment.” The article in The Post includes good counsel from a communication expert who advises an organization that is attacked not to escalate the situation. Still, organizations fail to defend their reputation at their own peril.

Regular readers of The Washington Post witness a drumbeat of commentary criticizing Dominion Energy, much but not all of it from activists. If nothing else, the commentary is a barometer for impending criticism from political candidates. And beyond needing messages on issues unique to any given company, societal flash points like sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement, privacy, corporate salaries and “Buy American” are all worthy of a customized set of messages in their own right.

With regard to politicians’ voting records and statements, a compilation has value as a common reference point within an organization and as a resource for external stakeholders. In the face of criticism from a political candidate, it would be useful to know what if any pattern that candidate has from a voting or advocacy standpoint.

Developing materials and a range of messages like this can be tedious, but the time invested will be well worth it if and when an inquiry or criticism comes that requires quick response.


What to Do, and Not to Do, When Writing a News Release

Even in the digital age, news releases matter as a means of shaping and articulating key messages. And especially in the digital age, one could argue, message prioritization matters more than ever.

Not to pick on the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, but the March 14 news release on its latest Reliability Leadership Summit strikes me as a prime example of what NOT to do when writing a news release.

The lede (sic) states, in essence, “We had a meeting; X number of people attended; we talked about stuff.”

Accurate. Noteworthy. And not the message-centric construct that invites the reader to delve more deeply into the subject matter. For those who do, the news release’s second paragraph compounds the problem with a chronological listing of speakers. No driving of a specific theme; no identification of a major achievement; no highlighting of a key hurdle to overcome.

Deeper in the news release, we gain insight into one likely reason that it’s constructed as it is: there’s a bevy of meaty and complex topics on the table, including “current and emerging risks to the reliability and security of the grid; the rapid shift in generation resources; accelerated technology deployment; regulatory and policymaking in an era of unprecedented bulk power system change; reliably integrating record levels of renewable generation into electricity markets; and assuring adequate fuel supplies for power plants.”

I get that. Still, a key responsibility of the communicator drafting the news release is to sift through the complexity and find the theme or two that aligns with the organization’s brand (even when the organization is a not-for-profit regulator). That’s the information that needs to be in the lede. That can be a challenging task, particularly under a heavy work load and tight time constraints. In my view, however, it’s a must-do, not an option, to effectively enhance the organization’s reputation and provide journalists, if not others, with the substance on which you’d like them to focus.

In fairness to NERC, its Dec. 20, 2018 news release on the 2018 Long-Term Reliability Assessment is a better product. This Feb. 5th news release from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce similarly strikes me as one that effectively drives key messages.

Getting eyeballs on a news release is enough of a challenge these days, and a topic for another day. That makes it all the more important that the news release prioritizes information that actually makes it newsworthy.


Arizona Initiative Proponents Enlighten Us on the Happenstance of Palo Verde Operations

Silly old capricious Arizona Public Service. All this time it had most folks believing it was a serious-minded institution, an electric utility (with 6,400 employees no less) committed to responsibly meeting the needs of its customers and its parent company’s shareholders. Now, as the debate over a proposed ballot initiative intensifies, we’re learning that we’ve had it wrong. APS pretty much might do anything at any time, regardless of what balance sheets, economic modeling, grid analytics or any number of other business-related factors show.

Don’t take my word for it. The true, whimsical nature of APS’ mindset is revealed in last week’s Cronkite News reporting on the proposed Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona initiative that calls for 50 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030. Initiative proponent Rodd McLeod informs us via Cronkite that, “If the Palo Verde plant closes, it’s going to be because APS decides to close it.”

Palo Verde, of course, is the nation’s largest nuclear power plant, the one 50 miles west of Phoenix that has three reactors with a combined electric generating capacity of nearly 4,000 megawatts; the one that annually tops the nation in electricity production by power plants of any kind; and the one that historically achieves among the highest levels of reliability of power plants anywhere in the world.

We discover APS is capricious because McLeod pooh-poohs the utility’s warnings that a decision to close Palo Verde would result from the steepened renewable mandate that, in turn, would force a reduction in the plant’s output and make it uneconomic to operate.  “He was skeptical about APS’ argument that Palo Verde would no longer be economically viable, since utilities from other states own part of the plant,” Cronkite News reports.

Never mind that in neighboring California – which already happens to have a mandate requiring 50 percent renewable generation by 2030 – the upward ratcheting of the renewable portfolio standard was identified as a key driver behind Pacific Gas & Electric’s announcement in 2016 that the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant’s two reactors will be shuttered when their operating licenses expire in 2024 and 2025.

“California’s new energy policies will significantly reduce the need for Diablo Canyon’s electricity output,” PG&E explained at the time.

Well, maybe business principles and market dynamics matter in California, but apparently not in Arizona, certainly not to a utility as unpredictable as APS. No, “If the Palo Verde plant closes, it’s going to be because APS decides to close it.”

Little did we realize how remarkable it is that the Palo Verde station has remained in operation these many years, irrespective of its high capacity factors and carbon-free electricity generation, to cite just two attributes. It’s kismet, after all, plain old kismet that causes APS to keep its power flowing.


NFL Must Elevate Its Communications Game in Reply to Kaepernick Maelstrom

Before you watch NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell give bear hugs to first-round draft choices tonight at AT&T Stadium near Dallas, you may want to read this recent Washington Post article on the league. It provides a good contextual backdrop for the draft and, to me (a huge football fan and Green Bay Packers shareholder) underscores how woeful the league’s response has been to the series of controversies touched off by Colin Kaepernick’s social justice protests during the national anthem.

While one can’t accuse Goodell of being invisible, I can’t imagine former NBA Commissioner David Stern taking nearly as low a profile as Goodell has as events have unfolded the past two years. As the article points out (and wayyyy late in my opinion), the NFL in January launched a 10-member social justice committee. To the best of my knowledge, the NFL never made any attempt to directly engage with President Trump after he stirred the pot early last season; optically, if nothing else, that was a mistake in my view.

I’m hopeful that, as the new season dawns, we’ll see Goodell and the owners and players on the social justice committee (if not others) providing much greater transparency about the conversations and actions that can yield enduring positives from the confusion of the past two years. To date, the efforts to compartmentalize events – football games here; meetings and conversations over there – haven’t worked. Fans want to see exciting football, sure; they also want to feel they’re not being manipulated by owners and league officials who just want to keep a lid on things for the sake of revenues.

Millennials, Climate Change and Your Company’s Business and Policy Decisions

If you’re looking for insights into how millennials view climate change and – more to the point – how those views might factor into your company’s future policy positions and business decisions – this week offered a few good data points.

First, a survey released by the non-profit Alliance for Market Solutions in Washington, D.C., featured these two notable findings:

  • Nearly nine out of 10 millennials believe climate change is happening, and the vast majority of those believe that change is being driven by human activity.
  • Over 60 percent of young Republicans said they are concerned about air pollution, and over 50 percent say they are concerned about climate change.

Second, as reported by E&E News among others, a group of 22 college Republican clubs, six Democratic clubs and five nonpartisan collegiate environmental groups from across the country launched a national coalition called Students for Carbon Dividends (S4CD) “with the aim of bringing market-based climate change solutions to the forefront of the national debate.”

The new coalition articulates its Founding Statement as follows: “As young Republicans and Democrats with decades of life ahead, we believe that protecting our shared environment and mitigating the risks of climate instability is of paramount importance.”

The developments are interesting because we now have an entire generation of Americans for whom there is not (and never has been) a debate over the science of climate change. The view so often expressed by Sen. James Inhofe, for example – that there’s scientific disagreement over the extent to which humans contribute to an ever-changing climate – is as foreign to millennials as an eight-track audio cartridge. From the time they set foot in school, from their initial news consumption, their first exposure to movies, and their conversations with peers, the mantra of human-induced climate change has been a constant.

One of the obvious questions of this circumstance is: How quickly, to the extent it hasn’t already done so, will this dynamic influence policy positions and/or business decisions in the energy world? There’s a whole swath of states in the Southeast, for example, that do not have a renewable portfolio standard. While the focus of the Alliance for Market Solutions and Students for Carbon Dividends is a carbon tax, the views held by millennials on climate change could manifest themselves into policies or business decisions in any number of ways. Might we soon see more states in the South – with or without the support of electric utilities – enacting renewable or clean energy standards?

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee just threw in the towel in the state legislature on a proposed carbon tax. Is this a long-term setback for the concept or will it soon prove to be just a bump in the road?

Red states? Blue states? Will it matter as millennials come of age? A story just beginning to unfold.

March 2, 2018